By Sean O'Donnell - 01 April, 2018
With the referendum debate fixed for the 25th May, and the launch of both the Yes and No campaigns this week, the casual observer would be forgiven for thinking that everyone in Ireland has declared themselves one way or another – even if that declaration is markedly different from ones they had previously made, a state of affairs alarmingly common in the halls of Leinster House these days. One camp which is assumed to be overwhelmingly pro-repeal is the student population, for whom the date of the vote is said to have been decided. Not so, says Roger Berkeley, spokesperson for Students Against Repeal, who also held their launch last week. This was the result of months, even years of work by successive generations of pro-life students, and will be followed with canvassing on campus by pro-life societies across the country.
Roger hopes that their work bring together people from all walks of life in defence of the dignity of the unborn and for the protection of Irish women. “Students Against Repeal is uniting students to campaign against the introduction of abortion on-demand into Ireland. There are stereotypes out there, about what those campaigning for a No vote look like, but the truth is, the No campaign is a very diverse group of people. Our particular campaign is to represent students and show the country that there have been more and more students signing up to campaign for a No vote every day for several months. Students are not a homogenous bunch; they are as diverse as any other group of people.”
Very visible in the media and online recently has been Katie Ascough, the former president of UCD Student’s Union, who was impeached last year for removing illegal abortion information from the student’s annual handbook. Ascough is currently campaigning in towns across the country with the LoveBoth Project, and will be heading up a series of Stand Up for Life Rallies in Donegal, Athlone, Galway, Limerick, and Cork during Easter Week. In a recent article in the Irish Times, she expressed her conviction that student apathy will have to be tackled to ensure high turnout on polling day, citing the SU (Student’s Union) vote determining their abortion policy five years ago, in which only 8% of students actually voted. This has been echoed in other colleges, with a similar vote in UL on whether to campaign for Yes or to stay neutral, resulting in a Yes vote by 171-71. It’s difficult to see how 242 votes in total could accurately represent the wishes of a student population of 12,000 people.
Yet despite the challenges they face, often from the universities themselves, with unequally represented debates happening again and again, the pro-life student groups are gaining ground everywhere, according to Roger. “In Galway earlier this month, there was a debate in NUIG where the pro-abortion side won by only two votes. The result was 90-88 and the majority of pro-life votes were those who had changed their mind since the start of the debate. Most of those 88 students are now actively canvassing door-to-door in Galway asking their fellow citizens to vote no.”
When faced with the difficult task of standing up for mothers and babies, what drives these students to promote better answers than abortion? According to Katie Ascough, echoed by Students Against Repeal, it is simple facts that make the difference – such as the fact that “the heart of the unborn child begins to beat at 21 days, or that by six weeks of pregnancy, before the majority of abortions are performed, the child’s brain has started developing, and continues developing until that person is in their late twenties; or that in a 12 week ultrasound scan, you can see a child sucking her thumb.”
In short, a deep and abiding reverence for the humanity of the unborn child, and the dignity and worth of Irish women is leading these young people to a stand, which surely must be called counter-cultural.
It was the same regard for life, coupled with the support of her mother Deirdre* that prompted Sarah* to choose life for her son, Adam* when she was faced with an unplanned pregnancy in her second year of college.
Deirdre says watching her daughter go through something so difficult at such a young age was incredibly tough: “Some of her friends advised her not to ‘ruin her life’, and they offered her the money for an abortion. This didn’t include the pressure she was under from the baby’s father to abort. It was just so hard to watch my own child in such emotional turmoil. But when the scans were given to her, she started to see the baby as a real person, and started to fall in love with him.”
When the baby was born, Deirdre was there to support Sarah. “When our beautiful baby boy arrived, we both just cried, there was so much emotion – relief, and the perfectness of the baby.” This support has been invaluable for mother and baby, but Deirdre says that Sarah is a “wonderful, strong woman who is an example to me. With the help of God, she has jumped many hurdles, finishing an honours degree despite being pregnant and holding down a part time job as well.”
Along with supports for mothers and babies during pregnancy, surely a society intent on cherishing life at all stages post-referendum must develop means of helping students like Sarah to achieve their dreams without feeling that they have no other choice than abortion.
Students Against Repeal say that while the stakes are high in this referendum, more and more students are joining their voices to those calling for the protection of unborn lives. “When students realise what’s at stake, they not only decide to vote no, they get involved to make sure everyone else does too! The pro-life movement is active across all of our university campuses, changing hearts and minds every single day.”